His six-book series tracing the history of California up through 1950, along with a decade-long stint as state librarian, has established Kevin Starr as the Golden State's chief chronicler. This year, he stepped down from his government post to return to writing and teaching. Starr's latest book,"Coast of Dreams: California on the Edge, 1990-2003," takes a "journalistic look," as he puts it, at the travails and triumphs of California during the 1990s. Starr examines how the California dream has become more elusive for many residents as the middle-class has shrunk, and how the latest wave of immigration has reshaped the state.
Question: You define the California dream as the attainment of a middle-class lifestyle. Is it dead?
Answer: The California dream is not dead, but it has changed. It used to be something that was simply given to you. It has now become something to be struggled for. In a way, it resembles what it was like during the early days of California the 1850s, the 1860s and the 1870s when people really had to struggle to attain the California dream. I like to say that what a Spanish philosopher called the "tragic sense of life" is coming to California now. We had the earthquakes, the fires, the floods and all the social problems that came to the fore in the early 1990s. The dream is now really "on the edge," and we've got to work for it.
Q: How did this happen?
A: People tend to think that in California, we made our own paradise. But we didn't. We had lots of help from the federal government. We had help in the late 19th century and the early 20th century with the whole water supply system, and then after World War II with the military and space spending. As we now all know, when that federal spending declined, as it did in the 1990s, that left California in a very tough place. Also, the manufacturing sector is not as flourishing as it should be. We've got to encourage that.
Q: What about now?
A: In the last couple years, we looked the Gorgon in the face the state may not have been able to declare Chapter 11, but we came about as close as one can get and we determined that we were going to get our economic house in order. But we do have major challenges ahead. We have to plan for 50 million-plus people in this state by the year 2040. We know that our economy is going to have to be unfettered in certain areas. And finally, we can't offload all our energy needs to the boys from Texas and let them colonize us and turn us into a lifestyle resort we saw the results of that.
Q: What's your take on the job that Arnold Schwarzenegger has done as governor?
A: Arnold Schwarzenegger has emerged as a first-rate governor. I would rank him right up there with California's great governors, including Hiram Johnson, Earl Warren and Pat Brown.
Q: What makes you say that?
A: He's reviving business and improving our business climate. He put a cap on spending so that 4 percent of revenues are held in reserve. Then he set up that bond issue with the approval of the Legislature that allows us to recover without gutting our social programs to the point where the sick, the blind and the lame will be out on the street. He's also working with the Democrats, especially with (Senate President-pro-tempore) John Burton. He got politics working again in Sacramento, the way it should be working.
Q: But Schwarzenegger had trouble getting his budget passed, and there's been some opposition to his other moves.
A: We do see him more as a human being now. And yes, people have gone up against him on things they disagree with. That's part of the political process. It's not as if he's enforced some major consensus across the whole spectrum. But I will tell you that among the 67 percent of voters who approve of him and I include myself among them we like the movement, we like his energy.
Q: Do you think the state Legislature has improved its public standing as well?
A: Yes it has. The Legislature has shown it can work with the governor to bring California back from the brink. But the Legislature is laboring under term limits. The voters put term limits in back in 1990 to get rid of (then-Assembly Speaker) Willie Brown. In the 10 years I was up there, I saw these bright people come into the Legislature. They master the process and in three, four or five years they become heads of committees and some become real assets to the state. Then they are termed out. I think we should have longer terms: at least 10 years in the Assembly.
Q: Proposition 13 is widely blamed for much of the dysfunction in the state's finances and its relations with local governments. Is it time to get rid of it?
A: It has to be left alone. It has to die out when the people who are its beneficiaries are no longer with us. I don't think we can have that kind of battle now. You can argue the merits of changing or abolishing it 'til the cows come home, but I wouldn't touch it with a 10-foot pole at least for another 10 or even 20 years.
Q: What about the California Performance Review the proposed restructuring of California government?
A: I view that as a periodic check-up that any large organization needs from time to time. It's been 90 years since we've had any significant reforms on this scale since the time of Hiram Johnson. Now I don't view this as "blowing up the boxes" as the governor called it. It's more of a "toning up" of the system. To really blow up the boxes, you need to call a constitutional convention. We had one of those in 1878-79 and it didn't yield that much good for us.
Q: What's your take on L.A. Mayor James Hahn as he faces a re-election challenge?
A: Look, in the late 1990s, there was a sense of fatigue among L.A. voters. People wanted a "time out" from all the major battles and personalities and Mayor Hahn is that "time out." He is low-key and he's not high-maintenance he does not require a lot of public feedback. This also makes Hahn vulnerable because people say, "What has he been doing?" One thing that Hahn won't do now either because he can't or refuses to is to lay out this "vision thing" for L.A. Hahn's challengers are very good at this, especially (Antonio) Villaraigosa and (Bob) Hertzberg.
Q: What was your take on the Valley's secession bid?
A: That actually was a good debate. I was against the breakup of Los Angeles. But I'm a great believer in the borough system of government. A borough system would cluster the services that are already being provided, just give it a more local focus.
Q: Over the last 25 years, you have written an exhaustive history of California and you're still not finished. How do you keep going? Do you use researchers?
A: I enjoy writing. When I was at Harvard working on my dissertation, I started borrowing books about California from the library and found that there was so much that had not been told. I started with just one book about the founders of California. But thanks to my publisher, I have been able to keep going. I do not use researchers. I know other historians have, and I know that it has occasionally gotten them into trouble. I do all my research work myself.
Q: Now that you've stepped down as state librarian, what's next?
A: I'm not at this time envisioning a return to public service. I have taken the history of California up to 1950. I don't regard the book I just published as part of that history it really is a journalistic take on things I observed during my time up in Sacramento. The real history and documentation from the last 10 years will come much later. In the meantime, I'm working on the next volume in the history.
For reprint and licensing requests for this article, CLICK HERE.